Cuban Notebook: Latest Buzz On Cuban Players

The international market is flooded with Cuban players who have left the island. Some of them are well-known to the scouting community and will go straight to the major leagues, while others are exciting young prospects.

Most of them, though, are giving teams headaches trying to sort them out. Who are they? Who’s representing them? How can they see the players? Are they even any good?

It’s impossible to put a number on, but there are scores of Cuban players popping up outside the island. Most of them are organizational prospects at best, with teams scrambling for information on them and trying to figure out who they need to prioritize seeing.

Hector Olivera (Photo by Bill Nichols).
Hector Olivera (Photo by Bill Nichols).

The top two players confirmed to be out of Cuba and exempt from the international bonus pools are Hector Olivera and Yasmany Tomas. Olivera is still in the nascent stages of establishing residency (likely in Haiti) and getting clearance from the U.S. government and Major League Baseball to be able to sign. It’s a matter of government paperwork, so there’s no easy timetable to give here, but it’s possible that Olivera will be able to sign this offseason.

Olivera ranked as the No. 6 prospect in Cuba before he defected, though that ranking comes with a huge amount of uncertainty. When healthy, Olivera was a dynamic player and a potential big league all-star, though health issues sidetracked him and have prevented teams from seeing him in-person for the last couple of years, which means he has a lot to prove and a lot of teams eager to see him.

Then there’s Tomas (see Baseball America’s complete guide to Yasmany Tomas), who is free to sign any time. Media reports continue to assume that Tomas is asking for $100 million, which is wrong. I haven’t had a team yet tell me that Tomas is asking for $100 million, just that his camp is looking for more than what Rusney Castillo got from the Red Sox. That could mean topping Castillo’s $72.5 million total contract, or it could mean beating what essentially works out to a $12 million average annual value.

But when media reports consistently cite a certain dollar figure for a player, then scouts react to that number, it’s just a classic way to fuel the spread of misinformation, which is rampant in the international market, sometimes with devious intent. In some cases, that can even hurt the player through no fault of his own. I don’t know how much money Tomas will sign for, but given all the corruption in this arena and that something written in Baseball America could directly influence a player’s market, as a general policy, I’d rather stay away from forecasting a dollar figure for Cuban players.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Tomas only turns 24 this month. With any Cuban player, there are going to be different people with a percentage in his contract whose incentives might not be perfectly aligned, but Tomas doesn’t need to sign a contract for six or seven years. A four-year deal would make him a free agent again heading into his age-28 season, the same as Pablo Sandoval. It’s likely that Tomas would be paying far less in commission to various people on his second contract than his first, although Cuban players don’t necessarily call their own shots on the contract.

Given the concerns teams have about what might happen to Tomas’ physique in the future, a shorter contract might be more palatable both for both a team and Tomas. Unless a club is in love with Tomas and decides to go overboard with a contract—and given that he’s still unsigned, that seems unlikely—a creative team that comes up with an offer structured to meet the incentives of everyone involved could end up being the one that signs him.

Young infielders Yoan Moncada and Andy Ibanez both are out of Cuba. Moncada, 19, is the subject of tremendous interest among teams, as I get asked nearly every day about what’s going on with Moncada, who’s believed to be in Guatemala. The back story behind Moncada is extremely unusual and a little unseemly, even by typical stories of Cuban players leaving the island, but he’s a tremendous talent who’s better than anyone in the 2015 draft and dominated the Cuban junior leagues much like Jorge Soler and Yasiel Puig did. Neither Moncada or Ibanez are free agents yet, though that should be coming this offseason.

The whereabouts of Jose Fernandez remain unconfirmed. The only reliable information, at this point, is that Fernandez and his cousin, catcher Lazaro Herrera, are no longer playing in Cuba and have been removed from the Matanzas team. I would not make the assumption that he has left Cuba, as other players in the past have been caught trying to defect and were removed from their teams without an official announcement from the Cuban baseball federation.

More Cubans

• Then there are the lesser-known Cuban players, including outfielder Dian Toscano, who the Red Sox have recently scouted at private workouts. The Red Sox hosted Toscano, a 25-year-old free agent, at their Dominican complex on Thursday and Friday. Toscano is a 5-foot-11, 200-pound lefty who played five seasons for Villa Clara in Serie Nacional, so he’s exempt from the bonus pools. He’s not a player scouts have seen much of, since he didn’t play for the Cuban national team. He hit .356/.440/.452 in 86 plate appearances with eight walks and eight strikeouts in 2012-13, his final season in Cuba. The previous season, Toscano batted .287/.438/.380 with more than twice as many walks (35) as strikeouts (16), and three home runs. Toscano was a left fielder in Cuba, and with his lack of arm strength, that’s where he fits best in the field. Toscano was also spotted earlier at a private workout for the Giants.

While there has been talk around baseball that the Red Sox may be looking for a lefthanded bat, the outfield situation in Boston is already overcrowded with Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts candidates for center field, and Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava options on the corners. Jackie Bradley Jr., a Gold Glove nominee in center field who’s offensive struggles got him demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket at the end of the year, is also in the picture.

• The Red Sox could also have interest in Cuban players who fall under the international bonus pools, where they would have somewhat of an advantage over other teams. Like the Yankees and Rays, the Red Sox have already blown well beyond their bonus pool into the maximum penalty range, which means they can’t sign anyone subject to the pools for more than $300,000 the next two signing periods, beginning July 2, 2015, and they’re subject to a 100 percent tax on their 2014-15 pool overage. Since they’re already in the max penalty range, they don’t have to make the decision that most other clubs face over whether it’s worth it to go over their pool sit out on players for more than $300,000 for the next two years.

Moncada and Ibanez are the top names among players subject to the bonus pools, but the Red Sox are known to have scouted 23-year-old righthander Jorge Despaigne in a private workout. In Cuba, Despaigne struggled with his control, though sources in Cuba said Despaigne was one of the country’s more intriguing up-and-coming arms due to his ability to supposedly throw in the mid-90s, although I’ve never seen him enough to confirm that myself. In September, though, Despaigne had an open showcase where he struggled, topping out at 91 mph, so he will have to show more than that to get major league clubs excited. The Dodgers have also held a private workout for Despaigne, who has an open showcase along with Toscano today in the Dominican Republic after the International Prospect League showcase concludes.

• Another Cuban pitcher subject to the bonus pools is Yoan Lopez, a former teammate with Despaigne on Isla De La Juventud. Lopez is a free agent with residency in Haiti, although he still has to obtain a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury before MLB will let him sign. Lopez has not worked out for clubs yet, but he has an open showcase at the Giants’ academy in the Dominican Republic on Saturday. Lopez, 21, is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and played three seasons in Cuba. Last year in his final season (2013-14), Lopez started seven games and had a 3.12 ERA, 28 strikeouts and 11 walks in 49 innings before he defected midway through the season.

• Righthanded-hitting third baseman Pavel Quesada is in the Dominican Republic, though he has yet to obtain residency or MLB free agency yet. Quesada, who’s 6 feet, 200 pounds, never played on the Cuban national team, aside from a brief appearance at the World Port Tournament in 2013. It’s not easy to crack the Cuban national team at the hot corner since the country’s best player, Yulieski Gourriel, plays the position. Quesada, 26, will be exempt from the bonus pools and did have several strong seasons of offensive performance playing for Cienfuegos, where he was teammates with Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Erisbel Arruebarrena and Yoan Moncada. During the 2012-13 season, Quesada batted .298/.412/.450 with 28 doubles, five homers, 50 walks (13 intentional) and 30 strikeouts in 347 plate appearances. He also played in the first half of the 2013-14 season, batting .322/.434/.443 with two homers, 28 walks and nine strikeouts in 182 plate appearances.